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The Man Behind the Spam 

Bob Harbin has his own little table at Yen Ching, just inside 465 on Michigan Road, where you can get a glimpse of the pyramids peaking over the Wendy's. It's by the window, so that as he sits with a spread of egg rolls, rice and rangoons, he's haloed by the midday sun. Somehow - in an overcoat and crocs - Harbin manages to look saintly. This is Harbin's most endearing trait, a somehow friendly indifference. He doesn't care what you think, really, but he does like you.  

Much of Bob Harbin's indifference is earned - he was born in this city but it is only now becoming his home. He grew up in a trailer park on the westside (now replaced by the entrance of an industrial park) during the fifties and sixties, and then he left for Los Angeles- not to return in any meaningful way until 2003.

click to enlarge Bob Harbin explains a blocking change to a chase scene before the intermission to (from left to right) Ashley Saunders, Diane Tsao Boehm, Rich Baker and Paul Hansen.
  • Bob Harbin explains a blocking change to a chase scene before the intermission to (from left to right) Ashley Saunders, Diane Tsao Boehm, Rich Baker and Paul Hansen.

But returning to Indianapolis, regardless of circumstances, has brought Harbin back to his first love: theater. He built a production company, BOBDIREX , that has been putting on shows in Indianapolis for the past three years. Two shows a year, both in the Athenaeum, and that's it.

"Officially, at least," Harbin says, glancing over his glasses between bites, "I am retired."

What he is retired from is a career that took him from the pinnacle of Ball State University's theater program, to the leaky sub-basement of L.A.'s studio scene, and then up to an executive vice president's office at FOX. After all that, Harbin could be excused for going to Palm Springs and spending the rest of his days telling stories at a beach bar. Or really doing anything other than working in the hometown he remembers as being hostile to "culture."

But here he is: sipping miso soup as the traffic on Michigan rolls by, and talking about his latest show he is releasing on Indianapolis: Monty Python's Spamalot.

Spamalot is based on that cultural icon - Monty Python and the Holy Grail - that so won the hearts and minds of the world that referencing the movie has become a punch line unto itself. If Grail was a spoof on both Arthurian legend and period movies - Spamalot is a send up of everything to do with musical theater. Naturally, it won a Tony in 2005.

Harbin loves the show, which is why he shelled out the thousands of dollars needed to be the first Indiana production company to secure the rights. Harbin knows that most Hoosiers aren't theater aficionados looking for an experiment: they want a good time.

"I'd like to say you just do a show because you think it should be done, but if you're going to do it, you want to make sure people actually show up to see it," says Harbin pointedly. "Hoosiers like to see things that they've seen. Thank God we have the Phoenix Theater, which only does shows that haven't been seen. They have a following and that's where people go to see new things."

click to enlarge Danny Kingston, Thomas Cardwell and Lincoln Slentz deliver a vicious mocking to the Knights of the Round Table in their roles as the dastardly French knights.
  • Danny Kingston, Thomas Cardwell and Lincoln Slentz deliver a vicious mocking to the Knights of the Round Table in their roles as the dastardly French knights.

The real key for Harbin is that he genuinely does love Spamalot. It's his kind of show, from the decidedly British wit to the slapstick comedy. He feels it's a perfect marriage between what he does, and what the script calls for.

"It's funny. It's adult, but it's not blue so kids can enjoy it. But it's suggestive, a lot of double entendre," says Harbin. "It's very dry. It has lots of gags and lots of very funny musical numbers."

"There's ego in this too," admits Harbin. "I think I'm pretty funny. I think I'm one of the funniest people I know, and I think it's the kind of humor I understand. And the kind of humor I try to inject into other shows whether it's there or not. I love a good gag. There're some really wonderful ones in this show."

That ego is not a new development; Harbin had it back in '78 when he drove out to Los Angeles to become a movie star. He was a character actor who'd graduated from Ball State with a double major in acting and costume design. It's easy to see, even 35 years later, why Harbin got into acting. Even when telling his own story, he slips between characters and voices, pausing for alternatingly dramatic and comedic effect.

For his first casting call, he chose the character of Shylock from The Merchant of Venice. It was a role that had garnered him ebullient praise from the local newspaper. As Harbin recalls with a wry smirk, "they thought I was genius." So when the casting director opened up with praise, Harbin was not unprepared.

click to enlarge Bob Harbin(left) fits Spamalot ensemble-member Dejuan Jackson’s(right) costume during a morning practice.
  • Bob Harbin(left) fits Spamalot ensemble-member Dejuan Jackson’s(right) costume during a morning practice.

"He said I did a very good job," says Harbin. "I said to myself, 'they were right, I am fabulous!' But then [the casting director] said, 'unfortunately we have 60,000 old Jews to play that part, so you might think of something your own age that you might actually get cast as.' My balloon got exploded. And my ego was shot. That was the end of my professional acting career."

With one path shot down, Harbin went into casting. Starting as a messenger boy for a talent agency, he rose to the rank of Senior Vice President in charge of casting at FOX, which didn't even have a casting department when they hired him away from NBC. He even served two years as the President of the Casting Society of America. Perhaps his most recognizable achievement was finding Neil Patrick Harris, casting him in the role of DoogieHowser and launching the young actor's career.

But before he was an executive, Harbin had to go through that first, harsh rejection. Maybe it's that initial, miserable auditioning experience that has given Harbin such a soft spot for those who share his one-time aspiration. Harbin is not picky about the origins of his talent, so long as the talent is there. He has recruited from local high schools often, especially during his production of the hit Disney Musical Camp Rock in 2011.

"I'm asked to do workshops," says Harbin. "I go to high schools and I ask the theater people, 'What are you doing at night? Instead of getting in trouble why don't you audition and do something.' Many times you'll meet someone and they'll say 'I used to do that' and I say 'Why don't you do it now, it's fun.'"

Once, during his 2005 run of Annie Get Your Gun at the Scottish Rite Cathedral, Harbin was coming up short in a very critical area: cowboys. Harbin was almost desperate - you can't have a Western-themed musical without cowboys - but casting calls weren't cutting it.

"No one knew who I was," says Harbin. "And it's always hard to find men who can sing and dance. So I went to the Circle Center Mall and asked men who looked like cowboys if they could sing and dance. I found one, and he did just fine."

The cast of Spamalot was not found standing around at retail center. Quite the opposite, they are Harbin's hand-picked favorites. Watching them rehearse their choreography would make anyone feel clumsy: they leap, walk and even crawl with a grace most people can't achieve in their dreams. And they do it all while singing with a volume and force you could hear at the back of the balcony.

click to enlarge Choreographer Kenny Shepard(center) draws the attention of Sally Scharbrough(top) and Danny Kingston(bottom) as he adjusts blocking.
  • Choreographer Kenny Shepard(center) draws the attention of Sally Scharbrough(top) and Danny Kingston(bottom) as he adjusts blocking.

"I have one of the best casts that has ever been assembled for one show," says Harbin. "I only say that because there are a couple other theaters who asked 'How did you put it together for one show?'"

Part of the answer is that Harbin only does two shows a year, which gives him a flexibility that companies with higher volumes simply cannot match. When it comes to top talent, being accommodating can be extremely rewarding.

"With these 20 people, I build a rehearsal around their schedule," says Harbin. "That's the single hardest part of my job. Because they're the best, they're the busiest."

Harbin is also able to handpick his cast because he knows everyone in town. This is true in general - he can't sit through a lunch without bumping into someone he knows - but even more so when it comes to theater.

"I go and see everything," explains Harbin. "Which comes from being a casting person. When I was casting in LA, I was always watching TV. I went to movies all the time. I had movies sent to me. That's where that habit came from."

And as a result of Harbin's extensive patronage, he knows the actors' names. More than that, he knows theirs strengths and their limits - the shows they excelled in and the places they stumbled. It takes time - if he was doing more than two shows a year, Harbin admits it wouldn't be possible - but it pays real dividends.

"I can call them," says Harbin. "I don't have to have auditions if I don't want to. I can just call. Or, I can have auditions and call someone I think is grand and suggest they show up."

It doesn't hurt that Harbin always pays, whether or not he's contractually obligated to. While with equity actors this is a given, Harbin makes sure that no matter an actor's experience, they are compensated for the work they do.

click to enlarge Audrey Brinkley(right) approaches Bob Harbin(left) during practice to discuss the practice schedule. Harbin describes his flexibility as the most difficult part of his job.
  • Audrey Brinkley(right) approaches Bob Harbin(left) during practice to discuss the practice schedule. Harbin describes his flexibility as the most difficult part of his job.

"It depends on their level of experience, how much they are involved in the show," says Harbin. "But I've always assumed that to have a theater experience you should never have to pay for it. And even if you're doing community theater you're paying for it, for your gasoline if nothing else.  In some cases when I can't pay someone a lot of money, I try to make sure I pay enough to cover their expenses."

Harbin especially enjoys working with young people.  Camp Rock wasn't the only time he has used high schoolers and college students. For him, it's a chance at mentorship, and an opportunity to help the change lives.

"I enjoy that I get a chance to treat them like it's a job," says Harbin. "Many of them have never had a job before. I think it's helpful to them, maybe, because of that. I try not to just treat them as, but to respect them as adults. They get to see what it's really like to do theater."

The one person in Spamalot who won't get paid is Bob Harbin himself. In a way this is the other thing that gives Harbin his flexibility: it's all his money. He doesn't answer to anyone but himself, and so if a show is a bust or he runs over budget, the only person he's accountable to is himself.

"I was fortunate enough to be able to put some money away," Harbin explains. "I took some of those funds and just said 'this should be able to take me form one show to another, and if I lose money and can't do that, I'll stop.' And so far I haven't made a nickel or lost a nickel. I'm pretty much where I started."

But this show, Spamalot, is different.

"Spending a little more for this one," says Harbin, flashing an anxious smile. "I'm willing cause I'm excited about it, it's more recent, and I'm hoping it'll garner more attention. If it does, everything will be lovely, if not, I will cry."

Harbin is growing tired of that singular responsibility it seems. He's currently trying to transform BOBDIREX into a non-profit, with a board of directors and a more distributed set of responsibilities - and a broader source of income.

"Theaters can't survive off box office," says Harbin emphatically.  "There's not enough money ,it can't be done. You have to find deeper pockets - sponsors.  Parts of your expenses become salaries. Part of the reason I can be proud of being out of debt is I have no overhead. I have no space rental, no staff."

And that's the crux - Harbin clearly means for the company to continue without him at some, indefinite point in the future. A non-profit gives him that chance to make sure the show goes on.

"It's got to have legs," says Harbin.

Because Bob Harbin does care, despite how flippant his attitude can seem at times. He cares about bringing fantastic shows like Spamalot to the people of Indianapolis. He cares about the continuation of theater and culture in a city that, unlike when he left it, seems to thirst for them. And he cares about the young, talented people he finds for his shows.

click to enlarge Danielle Carnagua wallops her dance partner with an imaginary fish during practice.
  • Danielle Carnagua wallops her dance partner with an imaginary fish during practice.

It's not so different from what he did in Los Angeles. Only now, instead of 1,000 person lines at studio casting calls, Harbin is finding his actors on the stages of our theaters and in the classrooms of our schools.

And, when necessary, in our malls.

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Mike Potter

Mike Potter

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Production Editor Mike Potter is a big fan of magazines. When he isn't designing, photographing, writing or developing, he likes to try formulating a better author bio.

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